Organiser of Whisky Birmingham, excellent drinking companion, and whisky expert!
Hi Amy thanks so much for the interview.
When did you love affair with whisky begin?
I’ve always been around whisky – my family is of Scottish heritage, and my dad and uncles always had it on family occasions, so the curiosity was always there from a young age. As The Birmingham Whisky Club grew, I’ve really come to love and appreciate it more and more.
Do you remember your first ever whisky?
I don’t remember my very first; it was always around so I had it very early on! From an appropriate drinking age, I hasten to add!
What is it about whisky that makes your so passionate?
It’s a big talking point – whisky divides a room just as much as politics! I think because it’s such a heritage drink, you meet so many fascinating people from different places and with different opinions. It weaves a rich tapestry of stories, people and events and it has such an important place in the hearts of people, you can’t help but fall it love with it.
You set up The Birmingham Whisky Club in 2011, what was the impetus behind this?
I’ve always liked going to tasting events, but there was no one doing anything with whisky in Birmingham. So I saw it as an opportunity to combined a passion with business.
How difficult was setting up the club?
Once I got going, not very. It was all the thinking behind it and the worry of whether it would work or not. Was I doing the right thing? Would people take to it? There was a fear that the investment wouldn’t pay off. Luckily I know Birmingham well and getting venues and people on board was fairly easy. They were genuinely interested.
What was the biggest challenge?
The fear of starting something something from nothing. But also the fact that I was still working on a massive event project at the time – a big global sporting event that happened in 2012! So it was truly difficult to juggle the two. And then there was the temptation to go back to a secure full-time job, rather than go it alone.
What was your background before whisky?
Events and marketing for a number of large brands.
Why did you decide to set up Whisky Birmingham (which is now in its third year)?
It seemed a natural event to put on as part of The Birmingham Whisky Club. Lots of other cities had festivals and I was surprised that we didn’t have one when I was setting the Club up.
This must be quite challenging, just how difficult is a whisky festival to organise?
It’s a lot of work. It’s very detailed and there are lots of things behind the scenes that people don’t see. When you’re working with alcohol, you have to be sure it’s a safe environment for people to enjoy themselves.
It’s one of my favourite events, but it is the one that takes the most planning and preparation. You’re dealing with different brands, timings, the site, members of the public… Many moving parts!
Do you start planning the next year’s festival as soon as the current one finishes?
I’ve just started 2016 – so before! I want each year to be different and so it’s never too early.
Every event should develop and evolve over time, so I’m already thinking about themes and where to take it next.
What’s a typical day like for you on the run up to the festival?
Just stress, mainly!
Well most days I spend staring at spreadsheets and checking things off. My life revolves around lists. Hopefully as the festival approaches, they get shorter. I also try and get in a lot of tea and cake, while worrying about risk assessments!
What are you looking forward to the most at this year’s festival?
I look forward to the very first person turning up to register. That marks the kick-off. I also love seeing people that I see out and about at whisky events around the country, coming to Birmingham and enjoying the day I’ve put together. That’s very rewarding.
There are few whisky festivals, what makes Whisky Birmingham different?
This year is going to be special because we’ve got Ian Buxton, launching his new book on Bowmore and presenting a masterclass.
The venue is another key differentiator. It’s a canal-side warehouse in Digbeth, Birmingham’s creative quarter. It means we can do things like a cigar masterclass, for example. I also make sure we have an interesting food offering in the street food area. That tends to drive the younger crowd to the event.
I’m also committed to bringing local people into the mix. We have a local chocolatier doing a masterclass, and I get whisky retailers and bloggers to curate stands for me. So it’s a truly local festival.
What advice would you give somebody, who is just starting their whisky journey, and maybe doesn’t know where to start?
Don’t be afraid to ask for tips and advice. Talk to whisky experts – a bar with a good whisky selection should have one in-house. Go to whisky shops and tell them you’re a beginner – they will help you to find your feet. Keep tasting different whiskies and get to know what you like.
How many changes have you seen within the whisky industry, since you’ve become involved?
The globalisation thing. Brands don’t just think in domestic terms anymore – the overseas market is very important. We’re also seeing overseas whiskies making inroads here and getting more valued.
For example you can go to a bar, and find a Finnish or a French whisky now, whereas five years ago they were almost impossible to get. No Age Statement whiskies are on the rise. We’re also seeing younger drinkers taking up whisky.
Women in whisky, still an issue?
Ha, the age old question!! I would say less so than before. I used to get asked routinely at events – why are you doing this, you’re a woman? I don’t seem to get that any more, so that’s a turning point for me. Judging by my events, there are still too few women interested. But this isn’t going to change radically overnight.
What helps is that there are lots of prominent women in the whisky world now being very vocal about what they do, from master blenders to writers to whisky makers and entrepreneurs. They all fly the flag and are first and foremost known for the job they do and the expertise they have. They are as respected as their male counterparts.
What’s your proudest whisky moment to date?
Still being here! Seriously, still being here. And the fact that my business is growing and that the events are building interest. People know me for what I do and events tend to sell out fairly quickly.
What’s your favourite whisky?
This is a question I will never properly answer!! There’s a time and a place for each whisky. It depends on who I’m with and who I’m talking to! Ardbeg is one of my favourites, but I also like the Highland Park range and Edradour. G&M do some really interesting stuff as well.
What and when was your last dram?
I had a Gordon McPhail Bunnahabhain 8 Year Old at Hard to Find Whisky.
What’s your most memorable dram, and why?
I got to touch a £35,000 bottle of Macallan recently but I certainly wasn’t allowed to try it! That was memorable as I was so scared I would drop it. My most memorable whisky moment was recently getting to meet Charles MacLean. A thoroughly lovely man with some incredible knowledge and stories.
What one whisky myth would you like to change the most?
That people can tell you what’s right or wrong. It’s very personal and subjective so you should be guided rather than told what to taste or think. You should be left to make up your own mind and create your own dialogue.
I’ve got one day in Birmingham, and I want to have some whisky experiences, where do I go?
Start off at The Plough in Harborne for lunch. Try some of their European whiskies. Then head to the city centre for The Victoria’s great selections of bourbons. Then onto The Wellington to try one of their 140 different whiskies.
They cover pretty much the whole world! Hotel du Vin next, for a quick swig of SMWS – they’re the only stockist in Birmingham. Then stagger over to the Jewellery Quarter to Hard to Find Whisky. If you’re feeling flush, book in for their £1000-a-head rare and vintage masterclass. Finally, end up at The Church for some deep South cooking and a final bourbon!
A recent poll put Sean Connery as the Scot they would most like to share a dram with, who would you most like to share a dram with (alive or dead, real or fictional)?
Robert Burns sounds like an interesting character, but that’s a bit obvious! Maybe Benedict Cumberbatch – need I say more?
Actually Steven Fry sounds like he might enjoy a dram. He’d be interesting to share a whisky with. Can I have three? (driving a hard bargain there Amy, but as it’s you).
If you could only drink from one distillery, who would you choose?
I couldn’t possibly say! I think the point of whisky is you just can’t choose. You have to try everything!
So what do you have planned for the future?
For The Birmingham Whisky Club: more creative events. More exciting things in Birmingham and beyond.
And for the festival, I want to bring in more brands, different masterclasses and keep it growing and developing as time goes on.
Whisky is massive right now – long may it continue!
Thanks Amy, looking forward to catching up for a dram again soon. You can follow Amy on Twitter @TheWhiskyMiss and attend Whisky Birmingham, on 7th March! Tickets are available here and you had better be quick if you want yours! We might even see you there.